A personal and professional insight into how pedagogical strategies had to be adjusted when COVID-19 forced the EHL Lausanne campus to shut down in March 2020. The impact of having to quickly switch to remote learning was felt differently by each professor depending on the subject matter taught and the size, age, maturity of each class. Senior lecturer in Financial Accounting and SBP coach, Maya Gharbi, answers questions on her teaching experiences, learning curves and breakthroughs.
What I teach
Half of my job consists of teaching Financial Accounting to BOSC1 students and the other half involves coaching the Students Business Projects (SBPs) for BOSC6 students. In BOSC1, the students are inexperienced and still figuring out how they like to learn, whereas in BOSC6, the students are motivated and more mature since they are approaching the end of their studies.
The SBPs are very popular: students feel that these projects are a perfect bridge between the academic world and real professional life, they know that this is the last task they have to complete before graduating. The interactions with the clients and the impact of their work are stimulating, and if all goes well, the SBP sometimes ends with a job offer.
However, Financial Accounting is considered a challenging topic for the first years, and hence, it’s no surprise that my experience with distance learning worked well with my BOSC6 students, but for BOSC1 students the whole process was more difficult. I had to really apply myself and be more inventive with new strategies to hook them in and keep them motivated. In brief, I had to get used to getting out of my habitual teaching comfort zone.
1. What new pedagogical tools eased the switch to remote learning?
When it was announced that the school was closing in March, all the EHL teaching staff had one week to learn many different tools I’d never heard of. The first week was stressful as I had to master new programs and new software before being able to teach remotely. The school put a lot of resources at our disposal to help us master the vital tools like Webex, Zoom, MicroSoft Teams, HyFlex, etc…
I had a one-to-one session for hours with a technical professional who, via distance control, taught me how to handle these platforms. The HES-SO also organized online sessions which I found very helpful. The first online session was followed by more than 900 people from all over Switzerland from many different backgrounds (hospitals, EPFL, universities).
I now have my own Youtube channel (where I have posted some teaching videos for my students), I know now how to record a Camtasia video (which is something I’d had on my “to do list” for years) and I know how to efficiently use a recorded PPT presentation. For many years I’d wanted to become more “fluent” with the new teaching technology, and finally thanks to, or due to COVID, I was forced to wake up and quickly learn how to use these programs. The unplanned and rapid move to online learning definitely pushed the transition at EHL for all professors and there is no turning back now!
2. Tips for those embarking on remote teaching?
Don’t underestimate the work that needs to be invested in order to build and deliver a good remote teaching session. I have often had to change my plans and assessments. Everything has to be adapted: the way the material is presented to the students, the way the course is built, the way the students are assessed.
It is already a challenge to keep the students engaged and interested in the traditional classroom, but this is even more challenging with an online course. I had to rethink the pace of every lesson. I was forced to be creative in the delivery of my course and this required serious rethinking of my teaching style. A 15-20 minute theory session has to be followed by a practical exercise which illustrates the concept just explained. The exercise has to bring a new theoretical perspective in order to grab the students’ attention. Learning by doing is key for the BOSC1 students, and the sequences have to be short and fun in order not to lose anyone’s attention.
3. Do some subjects lend themselves more to the remote system than others?
Yes definitely! Many students consider Financial Accounting to be the first challenging topics they encounter on the EHL curriculum. Not all hospitality students are numbers-people, so it’s challenging to get everyone excited and on board. Teaching finance by distance is certainly not easy. When a student understands the Cash Flow Statement (for example), I always say that I can see it in their eyes, literally, a light comes on! This is of course not always possible with remote teaching. I’m still wondering how to improve interactivity with my students when I have 70 students in my virtual classroom and I cannot read their body language and facial expressions.
On the other hand, I think that the weekly coaching sessions with my 12 SBP students worked much better. Every group of BOSC6 students is made up of 6 participants. My duty is to coach them and make sure they fulfill the project’s mission and that the deliverables are met. The scope of the projects vary and include business models, marketing strategies, concepts that need to be created, customer experience that has to be improved, etc.
We used Microsoft Teams and thanks to this platform, I could see the students and interact individually with them. After a few coaching sessions, I knew all the students by name. Our sessions were interactive and challenging. I could, without any problem, push the students deeper in their thinking and make sure they delivered the best possible solutions for their clients.
Online coaching was flexible in terms of time. It often happened that I had to meet my groups at odd times, (very late or very early), because the group faced an emergency or because a member of the group, based in a different time zone, couldn’t make it at the “normal” Swiss time. I enjoyed that flexibility and found it appropriate for giving the best possible support to the groups.
As mentioned before, the new system works better when it comes to small groups of experienced and motivated students like BOSC6. BOSC1 students are still in the process of learning how to learn, they are figuring out what works best for them and how to use technology efficiently for their studies. This is challenging for me, as I too am still wondering how to best present new angles to some of my questions in order to keep the interest of the younger students. It’s a work in progress for now.
4. Do you think teaching will ever be the same again?
When I walked out of my classroom on 13th March, I knew deep inside that this was the end of an era. I sensed that my job would never be the same again. COVID-19 has changed my job and has definitely accelerated the trend towards digitalization, with which we were already shyly engaging in the last few years.
We all knew it was coming, but I was expecting these changes to take place over a slow transitional period of a few years. The pandemic has made that change happen in a time frame of 1 week, probably saving us a 5-year training period! This came with a certain amount of stress, but we have adapted now and can only keep evolving. I am always looking for new, innovative, and virtual ways to connect with my students and this period has forced me to work outside of the box and use technology that I had not previously considered as a part of my teaching strategy.
We have to adapt, stay flexible and this is true also for the students. They too understand that they must develop a different way of learning. From what I have experienced, you can see students for whom this new method is highly suitable. Students whom I never heard a peep from before 13th March suddenly became less shy, it was easier for them to ask questions through the chat during the Webex sessions for example. The Hyflex teaching experience might have the advantages of both teaching methods (face-to-face and remote) and will be appropriate for a larger panel of students. Since learning will never be the same anymore, let’s try to make it better thanks to the new tools!
5. As the new school year begins, what are you looking forward to/fearing the most?
I’m looking forward to meeting my students again! I love my job, I love passing on my knowledge and experience. I especially cherish the more casual interactions with the younger generation, the more informal advice the students come and ask me after each lesson at my desk, e.g. the new start-ups they’d like to create. These exchanges of point of views, this two-way interaction enriches my job and helps me to continue learning from my students.
I am looking forward to meeting my colleagues and friends! Nothing will ever replace an informal chat at the M-bar with a colleague to swap views on a difficult situation or how to improve the engagement of the students in class. As colleagues, we need to collaborate more than ever in this remote world.
My concern is whether it will be impossible to create the traditional bond with my students which is so important to me and which is part of our DNA at EHL. How can I stay approachable in an environment of remote teaching?
There is the fear that despite all the technology, the digital tools are not enough to create an engaging learning environment, especially for the younger students of our school. However, I have big hopes for the Hyflex system that will be implemented at EHL. I am glad to have the opportunity to meet a third of my students during each class, and I hope this will help me develop strong relationships with them on which I can capitalize for the remote learning sessions. HyFlex should help make the transition smooth and hopefully will enable me to connect on that all-important human level with my students.